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Lynn Nottage finds inspiration for ‘Vera Stark’ in classic movies she watched as a child

TamberlPerry stars as title character playwright Lynn Nottage’s “By Way Meet VerStark” directed by Chuck Smith Goodman Theatre. | PHOTO

Tamberla Perry stars as the title character in playwright Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” directed by Chuck Smith at Goodman Theatre. | PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN

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◆ In previews; opens May 6 and runs through June 2

◆ Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

◆ Tickets, $25-$81

◆ (312) 443-3800;

◆ Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes

Updated: May 4, 2013 5:57AM

At the very same time that Lynn Nottage was at work on what would become her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Ruined” — a scorching look at violence against women in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — she was writing another play that could not have been more different.

It turned out to be “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” a satirical comedy that debuted in New York in 2011, and will receive its Chicago premiere May 6 at the Goodman Theatre under the direction of Chuck Smith.

Nottage’s title character is an African-American actress whose career embodies all the stereotyping and revisionism that for decades was part of Hollywood movie-making. It begins in the 1930s, when Vera Stark — a pretty, ambitious young maid and wannabe actress — is about to have the closest thing to a “big break” that a woman of her race could expect in the film industry of that time. It then fast-forwards to 1973, when Vera (to be played by Tamberla Perry), an almost unrecognizable version of her former self, makes a talk-show appearance, and is enthusiastically greeted by the studio audience that has little concept of the historical realities that shaped her life and career. In a coda, set another 30 years later, the perspective shifts yet again, as a scholar reconsiders the historical legacy of black actors like Vera.

“Writing two plays at once is how I usually work,” said Nottage. “If I’m distracted while working on one world I just move into another one. And while I was dealing with the Congolese forest and war and rape in ‘Ruined’ I really needed a refuge.”

While “Ruined” came straight from the headlines, “Vera Stark” grew out of a childhood spent watching classic movies.

“I’m old enough to remember black-and-white films being shown on television,” said the playwright, 48, who grew up in Brooklyn, attended the High School of Music and Art (where she played piano), headed off to Brown University (where she studied with playwright Paula Vogel, but still thought she would be a journalist), and then moved on to the Yale School of Drama.

“I watched all those wonderful old screwball comedies with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and my eyes inevitably focused on the black characters who appeared in smaller roles in them. I was at first thrilled that someone like me was represented, and then horrified by the way they were represented. My parents never let me see ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but I sneak-watched ‘Little Rascals’ on Saturday mornings just because I was intrigued by seeing the black kids.”

There was one fabled film that particularly fascinated Nottage: “Baby Face,” the 1933 movie that starred Barbara Stanwyck as Lily, a struggling young woman who figures out how to use sex for advancement. Quite unusual for the time, Lily develops a “comradely relationship” with her African-American female friend and employee, Chico, played by an actress named Theresa Harris.

“These two characters traveled together, and they sat at the same table and looked each other in the eyes,” Nottage said. “They had shared space, and it wasn’t a servile relationship. Theresa Harris also appeared as Marlena Dietrich’s maid in ‘The Flame of New Orleans,’ a 1941 comedy by the French director Rene Clair, and there she was even allowed to have a love interest.”

Nottage read what little exists about Harris, but then took flight on her imagination.

“Clearly Harris was so beautiful she couldn’t be entirely ignored, and she appeared in dozens of films,” said the playwright. “But ultimately she became frustrated by being marginalized and left Hollywood. Later, she transitioned into television and during the 1950s even had a role on ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’. But this play is not about Theresa Harris. It draws on a number of other actresses who worked in pre-code Hollywood, including Nina Mae McKinney and Mildred Washington — beautiful, talented women who knew how to steal small scenes, though the studios never figured out how to use them.”

“Vera Stark” marks director Chuck Smith’s second encounter with a Nottage play and comes seven years after his triumphant Goodman production of “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” her exuberant coming-of-age tale of an African-American girl in 1950s Brooklyn.

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